“Welcome to the Academy Awards,” Chris Rock said near the top of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, “otherwise known as the ‘White Peoples’ Choice Awards.’ If they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job — you’d be watching Neil Patrick Harris.”
That comment, along with a few others sprinkled through the 3 1/2-hour ABC telecast, set the tone for the evening: Culminating a season that saw the Academy take heavy incoming for its all-white acting nominees the second year running, there had to be plenty of anxiety about how the show would go. As it turned out, Rock aimed a few barbs — several at boycotters Will and Jada Pinkett Smith — but mostly kept the tone more funny than mean, with a dash — er, Dash — of irony when, at the end of his monologue, he introduced Fox News commentator Stacey Dash — an African American with little tolerance for minority whiners — as the new head of the Academy’s “outreach program.” That was followed by an equally losable bit by Sarah Silverman.
Still, the focus throughout the greater part of the show was on movies, which was at it should be.
The nearest Rock got to mean was a knock at Carol (“the third best girl-on-girl movie of the year”) just before introducing that film’s best actress nominee Cate Blanchett. The funniest was a taped sequence outside a movie theater in Compton, where the host interviewed African-American audience members about what movies they’d seen. Many seemed to think he was messing with their heads by suggesting obviously fake titles like Bridge Of Spies and Brooklyn, which they’d never heard of.
Asked what his favorite white movie of the year was, one viewer replied “By The Sea with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.”
“Wow,” Rock retorted. “Even they wouldn’t say that.”
If there was one target that deserved a few blasts it was this year’s experiment in crawling. In its attempt to keep speeches brief, nominees were required to submit lists of all the people they wanted to thank, to run as a crawl under their speeches. Which they did — while going right ahead and naming them anyway, even as they got the hook from the dutiful offstage orchestra. Whether the crawl will survive to next year is anybody’s guess.
The show itself was glamorous, well-paced and, despite Rock’s genial efforts, dull. The rare glimmer of life came from the few upsets. Some bettors surely made a killing off of Best Supporting Actor winner Mark Rylance, who beat the favorite, Sylvester Stallone, for his impeccable performance in Bridge Of Spies. And while Spotlight was an early front-runner for best picture, it looked like the momentum for The Revenant — whose director Alejandro González Iñárittu and star Leonardo DiCaprio both took home statuettes — would overcome the powerful story of dogged journalists exposing a terrible wrong. But Spotlight held on and won, and the crowd at the Dolby Theatre roared in approval as the producers, stars and the real Boston Globe reporters behind the story all crowded the stage. As my colleague Dominic Patten reports, “This film gave a voice to survivors, and this Oscar amplifies that voice which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican,” producer Michael Sugar said. “Pope Francis, it is time to protect the children and restore the faith.”
The early sweep by Mad Max: Fury Road — six awards, mostly in technical categories — left me wondering about the TV audience, as clip after clip of exploding vehicles, flying bodies, crunching buildings and ear-busting scores from that and the other action nominees merged into a jangling blur. Really there’s only so much one can take of this.
But eventually things calmed down. The partisan crowd greeted Vice President Joseph R. Biden warmly and he returned the favor (“Hi, Matt!”) before speaking out against sexual abuse on campus. He introduced Lady Gaga to sing “Til It Happens To You,” the song she co-wrote with Diane Warren for the documentary The Hunting Ground. If her performance seemed overwrought, the lyrics drove the message home — with a dramatic assist when the curtain behind the singer parted to reveal dozens of victims marching downstage like the revolutionaries in Les Miserables, many with slogans of resistance emblazoned on their arms.
Among the oddities were the producers of Amy, which won for best documentary feature. They thanked fans of Amy Winehouse because “that was all she ever really needed,” though if that were true, one supposes, the singer might still be alive.
But the winners were happy, gracious and earnest: Louis CK introduced the documentary short feature by insisting it was his favorite category because “you cannot make a dime on this. These people will never be rich as long as they live. They’re going home in a Honda Civic.” But the winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, humbly announced that her film, A Girl In The River, had effected a change in Pakistani law regarding so-called honor killings.
And no one was more gracious than DiCaprio, on the occasion of his first win in six nominations. He got to be happy and activist at the same time as he stressed the themes of The Revenant.
“Climate change is real, it is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat to our entire species,” he said, not a note of stridency in his voice. “Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take this award for granted.”